Rethinking blog networks and ethics

Jul 06 2010 Published by under meta-blag

One of the wonderful things about blogs is their independence. Most are hosted by wordpress or blogger and there isn't much advertising or sponsorship. Notable exceptions are blog collectives, such as ScienceBlogs and the Discover Magazine blog network. These networks have significant advantages, including technical support, increased reach, and collegiality (your results may vary).

One of the potential disadvantages is advertising and sponsorship. Here at Sb, we've been very fortunate in that our content is completely independent. We control anything in the center column. The top and right however belong to Sb, and they use this space to keep the place running. There have been several times when the advertising has been less-than-appropriate, and SEED has responded by altering it, but in this economy, it pays to be flexible. Ad content can serve as blog fodder. There's nothing preventing those of us who blog here from critiquing the ad content as vigorously as we wish to.

While the various bloggers under the ScienceBlogs banner are independent of Sb and of each other, there is certainly a penumbra of association. We all may benefit from good publicity, and we may be harmed by bad publicity, even if it comes from other blogs in the network. Given that we may benefit from good publicity generated by the network, it could be argued that we bear some responsibility when we don't speak out against bad practices on the network.

All that is my way of justifying what I am about to write: ScienceBlogs is launching a new blog, and in doing so they are making a spectacularly foolish decision. Today they announced a new blog called Food Frontiers, and I think a few simple quotes will allow you to see why I'm concerned.

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I'd like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo.
As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

So PepsiCo's PR flacks basically own a the center column content on one of our blogs.  This is not only a fundamental conflict of interest, it's also deceptive.  If PepsiCo is providing the content, it should, in my opinion, be clearly labelled as advertising.  It could be argued that since it is clearly announced that the content is PepsiCo's, that transparency is maintained, but it's not.  Readers of the other 70-odd blogs at Sb expect independent content in the center column.  What's more, Sb is indexed by Google News.  As a news outlet, we should be held to a high standard.  If the SEED management can't see what's wrong with this, this may be an insoluble problem.

51 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I may enjoy a Pepsi now and again (actually I prefer Coke but whatevs) and I can stomach a Dorito every so often but this. is. total. BS!
    Do. Not. Like.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    I agree with labeling it as advertising, but I am going to keep a more open mind and watch veeeeeeery closely.
    There are already rain clouds overhead.

  • becca says:

    Look, I can think of *plenty* of sciencebloggers who would LOVE to be sponsored by Doritos.
    For that matter, I can name plenty of MRUs who are already sponsored by Pepsi or Coke.
    I mean sure, I'm skeptical of information on "science-based nutrition" from people whose main claim to fame is flavored fizzy fructose water, but it's not like Seed is a pure anti-capitalist 501c(3) organization to start with.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I swear at first I thought it must be a hoax.

  • Dr. O says:

    Not a SciBlogger, but I'm with DC Sessions - this has to be a joke, right?

  • Khalil A. says:

    The new blog is from the PepsiCo R&D team. And that's exactly what the bloggers do, research and development. Most of the other Sciencebloggers do exactly this too so I'm not sure why there's such a fuss about it.

  • Hibob says:

    All comments are still being held over at the Food Frontiers blog. It might be quite a wait. Over at the original Pepsico hosted Food Frontiers blog (, posts have comment submission forms but there are zero comments on all of the posts I looked at, going back to last year. I'm perfectly willing to entertain the idea that no one thinks Pepsico's posts are comment-worthy, but the other option seems more likely. Scienceblogs bills itself as "the web's largest conversation about science". Food Frontiers won't be much of a conversation if it doesn't allow comments or if the posters don't stick around and engage with the commenters.

  • Otto says:

    Yah, next it's going to be the "R&D team" FROM JIMMY CHOO!

  • Stan says:

    In the interests of fairness I'd like to see a blog from The Coca-Cola Company too. For our entertainment and edification, they could research each other's products.

  • OmegaMom says:

    Thank you. I was very perturbed when I saw that in the SB RSS feed this morning.

  • Joshua says:

    Khalil: Three words. "Conflict of interest". I mean, this is basically the equivalent of having a blog about lung cancer research run by Phillip Morris.
    Trust is a big deal in blogging, especially science blogging. I mean, basically we're trusting people to accurately report scientific findings, because while your average ScienceBlogs reader might be interested in keeping up with all the publications in a certain field, they don't have the time to do so unless it's actually their job. So we trust the bloggers to provide accurate and unbiased information.
    I can't trust someone under the direct employ of PepsiCo to report nutritional information accurately. Maybe their intentions are good, maybe the bloggers Pepsi hired are perfectly honest and accurate and unbiased at all times... But I can't ever really trust that. I can't trust them to report studies that are unfavourable to PepsiCo's interests. If I had the time to read critically every paper published in nutritional journals and get the truth that way, maybe it wouldn't matter. But I don't, and neither do most ScienceBlogs readers. Therefore, we have to rely on independence from corporate influence as an indicator of trustworthiness. Food Frontiers can't offer that.

  • Iason Ouabache says:

    This is a horrible PR move by both Pepsi and Science Blogs. They will both take a credibility hit in the long run. This will quickly crash and burn, especially if they are already censoring comments.

  • Donna B. says:

    I don't like it either. While I often disagree with various SB writers about social or political stuff, I've never run across one that I thought was "selling" me something other than what they personally believed was right.
    A few other new additions to SB have caught my attention and made me wonder where SB was headed - Brookhaven National Lab, USA Science & Engineering Festival, and SETI.
    I did not come to SB to read the "opinions" of government or industry or large organizations of any other type no matter how worthwhile their goals or work may be or whether I personally favor those goals or not. Leaving aside any ethics, institutional writings are -- have to be? -- bland.
    At the same time, I realize that SEED has to have an income to provide this space and tools to the individual bloggers I value. I also don't mind institutions using a blogging style to spread their message. I do dislike them being presented as equals. No... "equals" is not exactly the right word.
    Why can't there be a separate designation - SB Institutions, perhaps?

  • Glenn Rossi says:

    This a bit off the Pepsi topic. However, I am now on a high protein & very low carbohydrate program and feel great! I've read the historical studies. Now, I just wonder how many years it will take before the FDA and society will accept the "rediscovered" notion that carbs, which drive up insulin levels, are the real enemy of good health and not fats nor protein nor meats nor fish. I love and live by the phrase, "Fats don't make us fat but carbs do!" I don't think that the food and drug industries are too excited to have the truth known, as they stand to lose or will need to reinvest large sums of money to make a major "change of course"!

  • Aside from the clear COI, WTF is a "frontier" in food? I'd prefer science discussions about food to be about actual, you know, Food. Not food product or food frontier or food distant cousin.

  • Donna B. says:

    #6 - The difference is that while SB bloggers all have jobs, their blogs do not represent their workplace. Sure, they have to be somewhat circumspect in order to keep those jobs, but they are not functioning here as official representatives of whoever or whatever they work for.

  • 20s says:

    I was initially upset, but my rage has given way to a far greater desire for a refreshing drink. A wholesome and enjoyable refreshing drink. Mmm...

  • perceval says:

    Many sciencebloggers have a reputation for clear, skeptical reporting of (public) health, including nutrition. Also, none of these sciencebloggers talk much about their own work or papers - they're aiming to communicate science, not to promote citations of their papers. Pepsi's entries will be written with one eye on corporate promotion, and any claims on this blog will need to be taken with a huge pinch of glucose syrup or aspartame, depending on whether you prefer the Light or the full calorie version.
    I would imagine that many sciencebloggers are now carefully weighing their options, including (hopefully) a certain plastic box and a certain metallic handle.

  • I was actually thinking of becoming BP-Terra Sigillata and taking on Tony Hayward as a co-blogger. I understand he has a bit more time these days. We'll write about BP's commitment to preserving terrestrial and marine organisms in the search for natural product anticancer drugs.
    No one will mind, right?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Why can't there be a separate designation - SB Institutions, perhaps?
    One assumes* that what these institutions are paying for is, you guessed it, our audience. (Ok, ok, let's face it, the Pharynguloids and Braytonerds, mostly.)
    So maximal integration with the rest of the site would seem to be the selling point. Dunno if breaking it off into some other structure would be as profitable for Sb.
    *I don't have any special knowledge or insight here, btw.

  • Ed Yong says:

    Shouldn't that be "Babel Pharmboy"?

  • chezjake says:

    Thanks for posting this, Pal. Your thoughts reflect mine almost exactly. I'm highly unlikely to read anything at Food Frontiers.

  • ZenMonkey says:

    "In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging."
    That's not blogging about R&D. That's out-and-out advertising. I'm disappointed in SB.

  • LadyDay says:

    This is an outrage! I can't believe SB is selling out like this! Has SB no integrity?

  • Donna B. says:

    #20- oh yeah, I know they want the audience and they can get it because I wouldn't mind seeing the "institutions" posts highlighted in the sidebar of the regular posts.
    But they really really want by being included in the blogroll without a designation as "special" is the trust, the ambiance, the collegiality, and mainly the acceptance as "just ordinary folks".
    Of course, they might the audience here not so friendly if they allow comments. And there's no conversation without comments - it's just preaching.

  • Marilyn Mann says:

    BNET had an interesting post recently, about how the CEO of Pepsi somehow was permitted to write a "personal perspective" right in the middle of a report on obesity.

  • becca says:

    Did anyone else actually Pubmed Dondeena Bradley, Mehmood Khan, George Mensah and Derek Yach?
    I think these people might have something to say. I'd be happier if they said it in a comic-sans highlighted "advertisement" context, but meh.

  • khan says:

    It's all part of a bigger Pepsi campaign to be seen aas benevolent and concerned.

  • #27 - Agree, the actual authors of the blog look solid and well credentialed.
    But can they say anything negative about PepsiCo? If they were to write that Pepsi One will probably kill you or that Dasani drained the Coastal Carolina aquifer and cost a bunch of us our water for the summer, would they still have a job or would they disappear faster then bigfoot at a skeptics convention?
    Company blogs belong on company websites.

  • Suzanne says:

    You are correct. It is a conflict of interest and it is deceptive. I worked for years at a newspaper. The editorial and the advertising departments were separate with a "firewall" between them. The editorial staff needed to be able to voice their opinions, regardless of whether it stepped on the toes of the advertisers. The advertising department needed to make sure that their ads did not in any way visibly resemble an editorial page. Eventually, when revenues started to go south they invented something called an "advertorial" which looked similar to one of our editorial stories, but was paid for by an advertiser. Bad, bad, bad practice. Readers need to trust and unless everything is operated in perfect transparency, that will not happen.
    This is a very bad idea.

  • Daniel says:

    Southern Fried Scientist hit the nail on the head.
    My own opinion: A PepsiCo blog completely undermines the integrity of ScienceBlogs as an entity. This was supposed to be the island of nearly pure science love and discussion (though advertising is tolerable - most of us don't even see it anymore). Having a food blog sponsored by a corporate peddler of incredibly unhealthy food - and passed off as a "ScienceBlog" is almost unforgivable.
    I unfortunately will now be boycotting ScienceBlogs until the overlords come to their senses. As much as I love so many bloggers here, boycotting is really our only power on this particular issue (apart from vocalization). My Scibling friends will tell me when its safe to come back home...
    (originally posted on the "Food Frontiers" blog - comment held for approval)

  • Virgin Goat says:

    "... and collegiality (your results may vary)."
    stay away from me.

  • says:

    "And that's exactly what the bloggers do, research and development."
    Their blog is supposedly about food and nutrition. Their products, which they are researching and developing, are notably devoid of food value or nutritive content.
    Their blog should be called "Frontiers in Empty Calories".
    I drink vast quantities of Diet Pepsi, but this is ridiculous.
    I suspect it's just part of their lobbying and PR campaign against soda taxes.

  • Conflicted says:

    Look at the bright side. At least there, the conflicts of interest will be obvious and content can be discounted accordingly. Same can't be said for all other science blogs.

  • says:

    "Agree, the actual authors of the blog look solid and well credentialed."
    Unfortunately their leading credential is as case studies in the revolving door between government and regulators, and corporate interests.

  • Grant says:

    @20 (DrugMonkey)
    Good point. I raised the same suggestion in my own blog post on this (linked on my name below) and you might be right: the sponsored blogs would want to be in the with the rest of the herd; if so, this wouldn't be practical.

  • Khalil A. says:

    I understand how this can be perceived as conflict of interest and hence why they cannot be trusted. However, because they are now part of Scienceblogs, surely they aren't going to lie about their research or whatever they're blogging about. I trust Scienceblogs already has the necessary guarantees regarding this matter.
    Having said that, what is probably going to happen is that PepsiCo will only report the science that they are doing - which is exactly what the other sciencebloggers do as well. The only bias is that they may not report the science that would make them look bad. But ultimately whatever they will be reporting (i.e. the science that makes them look good) will still be proper and good science.

  • doctorgoo says:

    My comment on Food Frontiers is being held for moderation. Here is what I wrote over there:
    I suggest people look at the original Food Frontiers blog for an idea of what to expect:
    What I see are a few "press release"-type entries, but also some interesting corporate initiatives too.
    I really doubt that Pepsico will discuss any controversial topics, or even touch on the massive problem of targetted advertising of sugary products towards the underage market. Will Pepsico truly take responsibility for (and apologize for) their share of our nation's obesity problem? I hope so, but as I said previously, I doubt it.
    More than likely, the bottom-line purpose of this blog listed in the original business proposal was something along the lines of "to increase shareholder value through positive publicity". Therefore I'm sure the bloggers here will have very specific guidelines of of topics they will post about.
    In addition to recognizing the business reasons behind this blog, I'd also like to point out the probably metrics that will be used to evaluate the success or failure of this blog.
    Since the actual impact of this initiative on shareholder value will be next to impossible to separate from the thousands of other corporate initiatives, more than likely a major pre-defined metric to be evaluated will be something along the lines of "how much has Pepsico improved the corporate image through this blog?"
    More than likely, by early commentors expressing such a negative opinion of Pepsico and this blog -- and by keeping the blog topics to pre-defined areas that are likely to cause little or no controversy -- that the natural increase in the tone and content of the comments will be listed as proof of success of the blog.
    FYI... I am not an employee of Pepsico and have no particular insight of the Business Plan behind this blog. My insights are based solely on my experiences at another huge, Fortune 500 company who frequently supports similar intiatives. In other words... if I were to write up the Business Proposal for this corporate initiative at my company, I would have included these bolded items above.
    If Pepsico has a vastly different Business Plan for this blog than the one I think it is, I invite them to name it.
    Furthermore, I invite Pepsico and Scienceblogs to disclose the financial nature of this blog collaboration. Pepsico is reaping great benefit by moving their Food Frontiers blog to the Scienceblogs forums. But how is Scieneblogs benefiting in return?

  • doctorgoo says:

    Wow... khan, thanks for the link @29 you provided (and I repeat here):
    So apparently the Pepsico blog is related to a bigger initiative called Pepsi Refresh.
    I would really love to see the Pepsico blog give a point by point rebuttal to the Weighty Matters blog post above.
    I certainly will be following this to see how it turns out. Something tells me that this might become very ugly!
    *gets popcorn*

  • Why not just embrace the Pepsico blog, assume to begin with that it means well, if it is true what they propose we will all have the opportunity to scrutinize their interpretation of "science based nutrition". If they don't do it well it will harm them badly, if they do it right, who loses? Or am I being naively hopeful?
    Re comment #7 - if pepsico have comments turned off that changes things, SB should make it an essential condition

  • bsci says:

    I think the bigger issue is Seed's tone-deafness on things that might cause problems. With all the push-back from the GE and Shell blocks you'd think that they'd give the other bloggers here some advanced notice. More importantly, the single line about who oversees editorial content is ridiculous.
    If they launched the blog after having a discussion with what would sit well with the existing bloggers and a clear description of what to expect with content, it would have caused less headaches. Disclosure policy, authorship, and what Pepsico is forbidden to post seem like basic things that should have been made public along with the blog launch.
    I'll also question how this is different from the Brookhaven, Weitzmann, and SETI blogs. They are essentially press-release blogs given the imprimatur of this website. Did THEY pay to put those blogs here too? I don't think anyone has asked. They definitely didn't join due to quality posts on their previous blogs.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Brookhaven National Laboratory doesn't really have a product to sell.

  • bsci says:

    Brookhaven National Laboratory doesn't really have a product to sell.
    Really? I thought every US citizen gives them money and that money is at the whim of elected representatives. They actively look for good press and the blog here is a marketing coop for them just like a Pepsi blog is for Pepsi. The products and value of the products are obviously different, but the ethics and disclosure issues are surprisingly similar.
    I'm mainly trying to point out that there are a few more shades of gray in this situation. Also, DOES anyone know if Brookaven is paying to have their blog hosted here?

  • bsci says:

    To continue my previous comment, how exactly did Brookhaven get a blog here? From what I can tell, it wasn't an existing blog that was invited to join the network. Did Seed send out mass emails to top science organizations? Were the invites from Seed's advertising division or editorial division?
    Alternatively, did Brookhaven, Weitzmann, & SETI all randomly approach Seed on their own? The issues here seem to go back a bit farther than the Pepsico blog.

  • ponderingfool says:

    We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.
    Why focus on "industry research"? Why not research in general on those topics and how they are improving health outcomes?
    They most likely are focussing on "industry research" to help the image of their industry. It is a PR move and appears to be upfront about it but framed in nice sounding language.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    The issues here seem to go back a bit farther than the Pepsico blog.

    Maybe they do; I don't have the inside information to judge. What I can say with some confidence is that, given the way this was managed, we'll see more of the same.

  • bsci says:

    Interesting. I think they've updated the disclaimer blurb on the side of the page:
    This blog is sponsored by PepsiCo. All editorial content is written by PepsiCo's scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist's affiliation and conflicts of interest.
    It still doesn't say who at "ScienceBlogs" has the authority to create a post on that blog. What's idiotic about this whole thing is Seed seems to have had no clue this was a big deal and is trying to make amends after the ink has dried on a contract.

  • says:

    "Really? I thought every US citizen gives them money and that money is at the whim of elected representatives. They actively look for good press and the blog here is a marketing coop for them just like a Pepsi blog is for Pepsi."
    On the other hand the Brookhaven blog is a way of finding out what they've accomplished with our money.

  • bsci says:

    That's my point. Brookhaven wants to tell people what's accomplished with our money. They want to do it because they think making the benefits more widely known will increase the chances they'll keep receiving money or receive more money. That IS public relations. In itself, it's neither good nor bad, but don't deny that is what is happening.
    If Brookhaven is paying to use scienceblogs as part of it's public relations operation, that is just as ethically troubling as the pepsico blog. In fact, it would be more so because nothing on the blog implies that's the case.
    I'm, obviously, completely speculating here regarding payments, but the fact is there are already multiple blogs here that are essentially public relations sites for various organizations and run out of press offices. Any resolution should include all of these sites in its response and a whole lot more transparency.

  • davep says:

    becca@3 " from people whose main claim to fame is flavored fizzy fructose water"
    It's not "fructose water". It's *sugar* water. The "high fructose corn syrup" used in drinks is typically 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
    Cane sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose and is no better (or worse) for you.